Taylor Swift was 14 when she moved to Nashville with her family to pursue a career in music. By the time she was 16 she had released a self-titled debut album that was full of promise and which set her on the road to stardom.
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Swift was a music-obsessed teenager. She was heavily influenced by her late grandmother Marjorie, a former opera singer, and learned to play the guitar by copying a Dixie Chicks song. “I grew up on country music, especially Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton,” she said. “At an early age I would perform their songs around my hometown, at festivals, fairs and karaoke contests.”
Released on 24 October 2006, her debut album was full of the energy and obsessions of youth. Particularly shrewd was her decision to work with an experienced songwriter, Liz Rose, who helped sharpen her youthful ideas. They co-wrote seven of the 11 songs on the album, including Swift’s first hit single, ‘Tim McGraw’.
Rose, who was then in her early 40s, is the mother of country singer Caitlin Rose. While Swift had written her first song when she was only 12 – the autobiographical ‘The Outside’, which also appeared on her debut album – Rose was a late bloomer. According to Caitlin, her former bank-worker mother “didn’t start writing until she was 40, not even a poem. It was sort of an accident”.
Together, Swift and Rose also wrote the hit single ‘Teardrops On My Guitar’ about a boy who is unaware that he is the object of his schoolmate’s affection. Rose, who described herself as being like an editor, said of their writing process, “She shared all those emotions with an old lady… She taught me to shut up and listen and let the artist write their own song, just be the vehicle. Hopefully I taught her just the mechanics. She already knew everything. I also told her, ‘I’m going to help you tell your story.’”
The songs, written while Swift was at high school, have a small-town setting and girl-next-door charm, reflecting the emotional talking points of an observant adolescent. Some, such as the charming ‘Our Song’, were full of vibrant images and helped by fine musicianship. The talented and inexperienced producer Nathan Chapman, who played guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass on the album, brought in some seriously talented backing musicians. On ‘Our Song’, for example, the fiddle is played by four-time Grammy winner Andy Leftwich.
In addition, dobro player Bruce Bouton, then in his 50s, was an experienced Nashville session man – having played guitar on records by Kenny Rogers – while guitarist Dan Dugmore had guested on several James Taylor albums. Percussionist Eric Darken was a veteran of work with Alan Jackson, Barry Manilow and Lee Ann Womack among others.
The results were impressive. ‘Tim McGraw’ was certified platinum as a single, while ‘Picture To Burn’ – a scathing portrait of an arrogant former boyfriend, hailed as the first portent of the feminism that was to follow – became a fourth consecutive Top 10 single from the album in 2007.
In the decade or so that followed her debut album, Swift evolved from doe-eyed country prodigy to global superstar, acquiring ten Grammys and a fortune along the way. But she looks back on her debut with pride, including the song ‘Tied Together With A Smile’, which is about friend who was a beauty queen who kept an eating disorder secret. As she said at the time: “I didn’t want to just be another girl singer recording other people’s songs. I wanted there to be something that set me apart. And I knew that had to be my writing.”
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